A Brief History of the Zenith Defy - Oracle Time
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A Brief History of the Zenith Defy

Zenith Defy Extreme Chronograph

You’d be forgiven for assuming that the history of Zenith lived and died on the El Primero. Indeed, the number of revival pieces in recent years based on that legendary racing chronograph would suggest the same. And there’s nothing wrong with relying on your greatest hit, particularly when it was one of the most impactful calibres ever built.

But by focusing too heavily on the El Primero, Zenith have a tendency to forget about their other, non-chronograph models. Sure, there are undoubtedly some pieces in old, dusty catalogues that deserve to be relegated to the archives, but the 1969 A3642 Defy is not one of them.

ZENITH HERITAGE - Zenith Defy 1969

Zenith Defy 1969

With its chunky octagonal case and tetradecagonal (14-sided) bezel, the first A3642 looks like a progenitor of the kind of heavily faceted, industrial style that Gerald Genta would become the maestro of only a handful of years later. In fact, in many ways it was more daring than what would follow.

In short, the Defy was built to survive, and did so better than most of its contemporaries. Unfortunately, that wasn’t enough for the watch buying public and despite (or perhaps because of) its extraordinary looks, it didn’t sell all that well.

(C) ZENITH HERITAGE - Zenith Horacio Flash 1972 - Defy Coffre-fort  Zeit tresor
(C) ZENITH HERITAGE - Zenith Defy Ad from 1969 PUB-1969-A0177

Zenith Flash magazine 1972 / Zenith Defy 1969

It’s very possible that the Defy was simply before its time. The look is what we’d consider pure early seventies and the trend for big, robust sports watches from serious watchmakers hadn’t yet caught on, so it perhaps wasn’t a surprise when Zenith toned things down for the second generation of Defy.

The next gen kept the same 14-sided bezel and oversized, ridged indexes as the first run, but toned down the case a lot. Gone was that striking, multifaceted look in favour of something a bit more in line with the rest of the Zenith range. However, this was also the first time the Defy had a chronograph to call its own in the form of the Zenith Manufacture Caliber 3019 PHC, an El Primero movement with a date.

Zenith Defy Zenith Flash Magazine 1970

Zenith Defy in Zenith Flash magazine 1970

From the next few decades, the Defy continued on as, basically, a more rugged El Primero, the upper end of Zenith’s sports collection and, honestly, kind of fell under the radar. That was until the mid-2000s and the Defy Extreme.

Zenith Defy Extreme Chronograph  Titanium

Zenith Defy Extreme Black Titanium Ref. 97.9100.9004/02.I001

In many ways, the Extreme put Zenith back in the limelight after a fair amount of time out of it. To call it a statement is to barely scratch the surface. It didn’t look like anything else out there, from Zenith or any other Swiss watchmaker, more akin to the emerging subset of Avant Garde independent horologists than anything else, complete with open worked dials showing off the El Primero movements inside.

Zenith Defy Extreme Chronograph

Zenith Defy Extreme Titanium and Rose Gold Ref. 87.9100.9004/03.I001

And yet, it fit nicely into the overarching history of the Defy name, a collection that since its inception had been big, bold and disruptive. While there’s a scant aesthetic thread linking the Extreme to the 1969 A3642, thematically it was a perfect continuation. It was brash and aggressive, a styling matched by its extreme performance. It wasn’t for everyone, and it didn’t pretend to be – to the point where if you do fall in love with them, you can pick up a preowned Extreme for surprisingly little.

Zenith Defy Classic Ceramic

Zenith Defy Classic Ceramic Ref. 49.9000.670/77.R782

Zenith Defy 21 Ultraviolet

Zenith Defy 21 Ultraviolet Ref 97.9001.9004/80.R922

These days the Defy is a hybrid of all that has come before. The Defy Classic, Defy El Primero 21 and all their variants share similar characteristics, such as openworked dials, integrated bracelets and the kind of bold look that falls somewhere between the Extreme and that seventies second generation of Defy.

It’s a balancing act that’s finally allowed the Defy to become the successful collection it has always promised to be, but never quite managed; a bolder, sportier, more innovative take on the classic El Primero pieces. Zenith however have never forgotten that original, many-faceted 1969 Defy, a piece so far ahead of its time that, with the seventies back in full swing, suddenly seems like its overdue a return. And return it has – in the form of the Zenith Defy Extreme. You can also check out our review here.

About the author

Sam Kessler

Legend has it that Sam’s first word was ‘escapement’ and, while he might have started that legend himself, he’s been in the watch world long enough that it makes little difference. As the editor of Oracle Time, he’s our leading man for all things horological – even if he does love yellow dials to a worrying degree. Owns a Pogue; doesn’t own an Oyster Perpetual. Yet.

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